Film

A to “Zabriskie”: Metrograph Traces the Development of Antonioni

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It’s been a good few weeks to be a Michelangelo Antonioni fan in New York. First came a restoration of Blow-Up, at Film Forum, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective of the director’s longtime cinematographer Carlo Di Palma. Now we have Metrograph’s six-title tribute to the maestro of bourgeois melancholy. Antonioni’s films are widely available on home video — many of his most important works have been released in beautiful editions by the Criterion Collection — but they open up magnificently on a theater screen, where the precision of his compositions works in tandem with the immersive, expansive despair of his vision.

The Metrograph’s retro is not comprehensive, but it features key titles from across the director’s career, charting the arc of his development as an artist. The earliest film here, Le Amiche (1955), is one he made before he became an international celebrity, and on its surface is decidedly not what one would call “Antonioni-esque.” It focuses on the friendships of five women, who are brought together initially by an attempted suicide, but there’s little ennui (or, as Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris once famously dubbed it, “Antoniennui”) to be found: The characters’ travails are largely romantic and specific, not existential, and while the film fleshes these people out in interesting ways, the director’s lack of engagement with the narrative (based on a novel by Cesare Pavese) is evident.

Instead, Le Amiche is distinguished by its competing energies — the hubbub of the women when they’re together versus the loneliness of their scenes with romantic partners both potential and realized. Beneath the surface, you can sense something stirring, something that would achieve full force in later films. Could contentment in love and career really result in any change to these people’s psychological fortunes? The formalist Antonioni that the world would come to know in just a few years — the poet of shapes, the careful arranger of figures in landscapes — only peeks through in a couple of scenes.

In the breakthrough L’Avventura — the picture that so divided the 1960 Cannes Film Festival that Antonioni and star Monica Vitti left their world premiere in tears, only for the director to wind up winning the fest’s Jury Prize — the aesthetics take center stage. The story is ostensibly a missing-person tale, about a woman (Lea Massari) who disappears during a visit to the Aeolian Islands and the search enacted by her lover (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her close friend (Vitti), who of course then proceed to fall for each other. Antonioni is concerned about everything but the details of the search. Instead, he trains his camera on the immensity of the sky, the lunar emptiness of the terrain, or the way the waves in the background break just so during a scene of silent agony for the characters.

L’Avventura has been called alienating, but I’m not sure I agree. Alienation is certainly one of its themes, but as a movie — especially seen on a big screen — it’s hypnotic. Antonioni was searching for a new way into the world of the film — one focused on landscape, architecture, gestures and movements. So he pulls you in with those striking compositions, his graceful camera movements, and his attention to sound. And, of course, with his attention to the human face, particularly Vitti’s.

In Red Desert (1964), arguably Antonioni’s masterpiece, that same actress plays a woman whose mind is fraying thanks to the devastated environment around her — an industrial landscape that the director, shooting in color for the first time, turns into a sickly miasma of menace, with brown grass and yellow smoke, everything bathed in soft, alien hues. And yet, despite his reputation as some sort of hyper-modernist scold, Antonioni clearly finds something beautiful, almost sensuous in this milieu — otherworldly and enrapturing. Indeed, his films can never be reduced to simple laments for the spiritual pollution of the world. What makes the movies so unsettling is that they resist such easy meanings.

Antonioni’s loose Italian tetralogy of the 1960s (the other two titles, La Notte and L’Eclisse, are not in this retro) explored the angst of the country’s postwar boom years. These are films of artful stasis, but they were also surprisingly feminine — focused largely on vulnerable women protagonists (due partly to the director’s partnership with Vitti), with mise-en-scène designed to portray the inertia and fragmentation of bourgeois domesticity. These people struggled to break free — of class, of home, of romantic entanglements — but often faced a bleak, beautiful entrapment.

When the director began to make films abroad, however, something altogether different emerged. With Blow-Up (1967), Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (1975), Antonioni largely turned his attention toward male figures and the destructive frenzy of restlessness. These works are in many ways looser than the earlier ones; they’re filled with scenes of hedonistic abandon and violence, with characters who explode their realities in ways both symbolic and literal.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Zabriskie Point, his look at an America in the throes of upheaval — and an unmitigated disaster when it was first released; its nonprofessional leads, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, playing two youths toying with radicalism, were a far cry from the likes of Vitti, Ferzetti, and David Hemmings. But today it feels like a monumental film, one that expertly captures the surreal chaos of America in the 1960s with scenes of revolutionary meetings, police crackdowns, Death Valley orgies, and that sublime, unforgettable climax — in which the eye-popping detonation of an elegant mountain home is replayed and replayed and eventually replaced by the slow-motion explosion of all sorts of material goods, from refrigerators to clothing racks to TVs to books.

There’s something primordial about Zabriskie Point and its resistance to narrative and dialogue and character, suggesting the death of a civilization but also perhaps the beginnings of one — year zero in movie form. Antonioni sees both the terror and grandeur of this destruction and rebirth. And, as always, he presents it to us in a way that indulges its infinite beauties and meanings.

Antonioni x 6
Metrograph, Aug. 22nd-Aug. 27th

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